If Taiwan has a national dish, it would very likely be beef noodles. How a dish featuring beef as a central ingredient might become so central to the cuisine of a country that, in the past at least, rarely ate beef, is a story that Jiao Tung (焦桐), one of Taiwan’s foremost food writers, explores in his introduction to Taiwan’s Top Beef Noodles Restaurants (台灣牛肉麵評鑑), his overview of the top beef noodle restaurants in Taiwan.
The book is the result of five years of research by Jiao and a team of 11 critics who have scoured the country for the best beef noodles on the market.
With an estimated 50,000 beef noodle establishments, this is no easy task. It must be said that a random pick of a beef noodle restaurant is unlikely to provide much of a culinary treat, and of the 173 that make it into the book, only eight achieve the highest five star rating, and another 14 the four star rating. Even for a dish as seemingly simple as a bowl of beef noodles, excellence is still a tough ask, and while many establishments try, Jiao Tung clearly feels that all but a few have been found wanting.
Of course, what constitutes a bowl of tasty beef noodles is often a very subjective thing, and inevitably in leafing through the book there seems to be unforgivable omissions or inexplicable ratings. It does not help that beef noodles come in a vast array of preparations, and one might be forgiven for failing to recognize a bowl of beef noodles in clear broth from the fashionable Chef Show Kitchen (阿正廚坊) in Taipei as the same dish as a blood red concoction with pulled noodles from Jiang Tai Tai (江太太牛肉麵店), an old-fashioned outlet in Hualien on Taiwan’s east coast.
Jiang Tai Tai
Address: 128 Zhongzheng Road, Hualien City (花蓮市中正路128號)
Tel: (03) 8320-838
Open: 11am to 2pm; 4:30pm to 9pm
Shang Jia Shiang
Address: 107 Dingzhou Rd Sec 3, Taipei City (台北市汀州路三段107號)
Tel: (02) 2368-6231
Open: 10:30am to 8:30pm
Lin Dong Fang
Address: 274 Bade Rd Sec 2, Taipei City (台北市八德路二段274號)
Tel: (02) 2752-2556
Open: 11am to 6:30am
Dian Shui Lou
Address: 61 Nanjing E Rd Sec 4, Taipei City (台北市南京東路四段61號)
Tel: (02) 8712-6689
Open: 11am to 2:30pm; 5:30pm to 10pm
For Taiwanese, cattle were a tool of agricultural labor and were seldom eaten. It was the Japanese who first tried to introduce the eating of beef. But it was only when the Nationalists came to Taiwan around 1949 that there was an influx of Chinese from parts of China in which the eating of beef was common.
For a lot of retired soldiers, selling various preparations of a simple convenience food of beef and noodles seemed like an easy way of making a living.
For some, the appeal of beef noodles was a mythologized linked to home. The addition of fermented bean paste (豆瓣醬), often with chili, became described as Sichuan-style beef noodles, a label still often seen around Taiwan.
“This dish had never existed in Sichuan,” Jiao Tung said, but went on to suggest that it is this nostalgia for another, far off, or even inaccessible place that gave beef noodles their original appeal.
“Beef noodles are strongly associated with veterans’ villages. This is a very special association, which is redolent of the sense of diaspora, a mood of being an outsider … Beef noodles generate this sense of nostalgia for a far away place, a separateness from the immediate environment. It is a very special nuance; it is a recollection of a hometown of the imagination.
In this sense it is very poetical. Beef noodles are tightly bound up with many currents of cultural change,” Jiao said, explaining why he thought beef noodles were such an important culinary phenomenon in Taiwan.
As to why he decided to write the book assessing the best beef noodle restaurants in Taiwan, he said it came from a sense of profound frustration. “It started as a notebook for my own reference,” Jiao said. “I didn’t trust many of the TV or newspaper reports, for most times I would visit some place recommended in the press, I would find that the beef noodles weren’t that good. I wanted to create a reference I could believe in.”